Tim Wilson, the small government enthusiast who is soon to take up the $6000-a-week taxpayer-funded position at a commission he wants to abolish. He has not begun there yet (or as he says in his press release, he is yet to “assume the position”; I hope to god this is a sly Animal House reference, rather than Wilson being as gormless as he looks in his publicity shots) but he’s had some things to say about the school curriculum. According to Wilson, the “human rights” component of the curriculum has very little to say about the liberal rights that preceded the post-1945 creation of “human rights” as an expanded concept.

Wilson says the current national curriculum doesn’t do anything to shore up “our liberal democracy” because (quoting — surprise — the Institute for Public Affairs) “there is not a single reference to the struggles for rights and freedoms such as that which occurred during the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and afterwards by American revolutionaries, [whose] whole purpose of acknowledging human rights was to protect the citizen against excessive government power”. Wilson suggests that Isaiah Berlin’s (actually T.H. Green’s, a half-century earlier, but let that pass — we’re only talking about getting history right, after all) distinction between negative liberties (restraint of government) and positive freedoms (enablement of citizens) can be applied to the contradiction between individual liberal freedoms and collective rights, as embodied in anti-discrimination laws.

The most interesting thing about this argument, which is largely a farrago, is how easily Wilson comes around to assuming a statist position regarding a curriculum — an assumption he, and Education Minister Christopher Pyne, share with Labor, even as they differ over details. Those of us who want a curriculum that teaches the actual history (while acknowledging multiple interpretations), without criss-crossing it with “themes” that are geared towards Australia’s export-led reorientation to Asian economies, would prefer the Magna Carta and the English and American revolutions be taught first as shaping historical events, then as topics for debate and argument. The obvious other side of Magna Carta is that it was a document cementing feudal power; its effect was to restrict the real freedoms of the English peasantry for centuries. The United States constitution has one clause hymning “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and another counting slaves as three-fifths of a human being. The Bill of Rights explicitly protects freedom of speech, but not of association or assembly, because it was written by propertied men with access to publishing who feared “the mob”.

Right-wing liberals take this arbitrary notion of rights as “natural” or “god-given”, which allows them to prate on about Andrew Bolt while criminalising anyone in a leather jacket (Queensland), anyone who wants a drink at 2am (New South Wales), or anyone who wants to protest on public ground (Victoria) — all while presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. The focus on “free speech” becomes a blind, whereby other freedoms can be all but extinguished.

I’d like the Magna Carta, 1688 and 1776, to be taught so that a good teacher can suggest that side of them, as well as their role in expanding universal rights. Wilson wants them to be a part of nationalist propaganda, to suggest as given that we live in a “liberal democracy”, rather than debating whether a country with media monopolies, compulsory preferential voting, vast income inequality, no limits on campaign spending, no bill of rights and few implied constitutional rights can be realistically called either “liberal” or “democratic”. Maybe yes, maybe no, but the job of education and a curriculum isn’t to answer the question before it’s asked — it is to impart the historical knowledge, then teach kids to think independently about the issues.

“Wilson is proposing that he act, as a state employee, to protect those whose freedoms are being curtailed by the state.”

How does Wilson slip so easily into a statist position? He makes an equivalence between negative liberties and positive liberties, which should be anathema to classical liberals (and was to Wilson, before he accepted a position with it). His conflation of “positive liberties” with “human rights” is inaccurate in any case — “positive liberties” refer overwhelmingly to material freedoms, the argument being that humans who are starving, freezing or dying without healthcare are not free, no matter how many bills of rights they have, so any meaningful freedom must assume minimum and universal material conditions. The positive-negative/negative-only division of liberties is the Left/Right political division, in essence, and they are different in kind. Making “anti-discrimination” laws the representative of “positive liberties” allows Wilson to present them as all on the same plane — and all deserving of the attentions of the Human Rights Commission.

But of course, classical liberals believe that rights are best protected by a minimal body of laws protecting people from government. Wilson is proposing that he act, as a state employee, to protect those whose freedoms are being curtailed by the state.

Why this absurd turnaround? Politics, pure and simple. The article’s commitment to a propagandistic right-wing curriculum is a bit of a sideline. It is principally a way by which a classical liberal can justify taking a $300,000-plus salary from a government body. The government itself lacks the guts to abolish the Australian Human Rights Commission and take the political heat, so this ideological redefinition must take place. It is impressively shameless.

Still, nothing goes to waste. Here’s something for the maths curriculum: TW is a 30-year-old think tank hack, with no other significant work experience. Calculate his likely private sector salary. Now: (a) subtract it from $320,000; (b) what percentage of TW’s new lifestyle is being subsidised by the state?

  • Supplemental question 1: Presume TW believes the utility of his new job to be 0. What, by his definition, is the marginal utility to the taxpayer of the work he will be doing for the $320,000?
  • Supplemental question 2: Presume TW has a child every year for the three years of his tenure. Calculate the additional cost to the taxpayer of TW, including paid parental leave and paternity cover costs above replacement salary to the taxpayer.
  • Supplemental question 3: If TW uses 50% of his paid parental leave to pay for a full-time nanny, how many pamphlets (@3 months/pamphlet) can he write on the “scourge of welfare dependency” for the IPA?
  • Supplemental question 4: If a portable dialysis machine costs $12,000 and extends the life of a long-distance remote renal patient by one to two years, how much is TW costing then?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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